I don't understand why this question of mine was closed:

This question is addressed to native English speakers who were born and grew up in the USA.

Is the upcoming censoring of "Huckleberry Finn", in which all the "niggers" will be replaced with "slaves", a normal phenomenon in today's American society? I mean, we all know that any language is constantly changing, some words become obsolete and some words acquire new meanings, perhaps, not good ones. So, it seems that the word "nigger" is now way more negative than it was during Mark Twain's times. So, replacing words with some other ones in this case may be considered a no bigger crime than, say, issuing a new version of the Bible that is meant to make the biblical language more accessible for modern readers. On the other hand, changing the words chosen for his book by one of the most famous American writers might be considered as disrespectful toward the author.

So, is it okay with common American people today?

The moderator who closed the question said that it "really has little relevance to a site for questions asked by "linguists, etymologists, and (serious) English language enthusiasts."

The thing is I consider this question to have a direct relevance to such an English-language site as I came up with this question while translating one movie script into English. There were many references made in that movie to black Americans and they were not nice - I didn't know how to render them in English without offending the possible American audience.

I asked that moderator why (in a comment), but he never replied.


Interesting. You may not believe it, but yesterday I was thinking about asking a similar question. I wanted to ask how common it is to use the word "nigger" in certain contexts. I am a bit afraid to ask that now, but I think I will go ahead: it is good for this website to define and refine its boundaries, because, considering the different answers our two moderators gave, it looks like this was not a simple question to answer.

I have a feeling that it matters a great deal on this website how you formulate your answers and questions. "Do educated speakers say "ain't" in formal speech?" will get much more sympathetic response than "is it wrong to say "ain't"?", even though the latter can be interpreted as meaning exactly the same as the former and would rightly be so interpreted 99% of the time, if we were to ask the asker. Both would result in practically the same answer at any rate, just with a few phrases like "not in formal speech" and "substandard" tacked onto the answer to the latter. I am not saying these phrases are bad or useless. So, if you had only phrased your question with less emotion, I suspect that it might have passed.

  • @Cerberus: (1) BINGO!!! At least one person is on my side!!! :) Thanks for understanding! Well, of course, I am not trying to instigate any battle here. I am just quite surprised that this question was closed, especially considering the fact that no one tried to close my previous ‘n-word’ question (“Woman is the ‘n-word’ of the world”), which in fact could equally be accused of being a question on sociology. I know what my motives were when I was asking this question – it was definitely not about sociology (in fact, I have never studied it and have little interest in it), nor even about – brilliant Jan 10 '11 at 22:39
  • @Cerberus: (2) English literature. The only need was to get this point clear about the ‘n-word’ – should I use it in my translation or not. On one hand, I keep hearing it in movies and songs quite often, on the other hand, I hear the news that they want to replace this word with ‘slave’ in the book of one of their greatest writers who is famous in the whole world! In fact, the same kind of confusion regarding this word led me to ask the previous question: on one hand, the word is a taboo, but, on the other hand, Lennon comes to – brilliant Jan 10 '11 at 22:40
  • @Cerberus: (3) the USA and records a song with this word in the title! I just wanted to measure out the present “level of brutality” of this word in the minds of American native English speakers. I agree I should’ve phrased my question differently. I consider it one of my biggest mistakes that have used the word “society” in my question, while what I meant was not really society, but simply native English speakers who were born and grew up in the USA. The point was to see how these ones deal with the ‘n-word’, not how they deal with – brilliant Jan 10 '11 at 22:41
  • @Cerberus: (4) one another. “Society” probably also includes how they deal with one another as well, which was surely out of scope of my question. “Society” seems to be a notion, as I can see now, way broader and more complicated. For example, emigrants in the USA – those who were not born and didn’t grow up there – were not considered in my question, while “society” includes them, too. So, this one word gave rise to the suspicions that I was asking something about sociology, while sociology in fact is a deep forest to me that I have no desire even try to enter :) Another mistake: I – brilliant Jan 10 '11 at 22:42
  • @Cerberus: (5) shouldn’t have used those examples with Huckleberry Finn and the Bible – it sounded as if I were taking sides, while I was only trying to present my confusion in a more detailed way. Plus, Huckleberry Finn is a kind of “too fresh” an example – the matter hasn’t been decided yet and is still hotly debated in mass media. Example with Lennon in the previous question was already “old enough” to talk about without fearing of being accused of instigating a battle. – brilliant Jan 10 '11 at 22:44
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    @Brilliant: I fully understand, and I think your view on this is well balanced. If it were my choice, I'd allow this question, also because this happens to interest me. But this website rather seems to have a background in programming and mathematics (Stackoverflow), and I respect the choices that have been made, as I think you do. The fact that any moderator will have a really hard job in being consistent does not mean there is something wrong, even though I agree that your women/n-word question is roughly equivalent in this respect. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 12 '11 at 1:21

So, is it okay with common American people today?

How is this anything more than a poll soliciting people's opinions? It's not about the language, it's about censorship and feelings. There's no technical basis for this question to exist other than as a rather subjective and argumentative discussion topic.

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    "It's not about the language, it's about censorship and feelings: - Exactly! which is very important information, which I need to have before I can provide a right, correct and well-balanced translation! Translating into another language has very mush to do with culture of that people that speaks that language. I wouldn't bother if I were translating for British audience, as the word "nigger" seems to be less offensive there: english.stackexchange.com/questions/5800/… – brilliant Jan 8 '11 at 5:41
  • "There's no technical basis for this question to exist" - What do you mean by "technical basis" here? Please elaborate. – brilliant Jan 8 '11 at 5:43
  • "How is this anything more than a poll soliciting people's opinions?" - It would have been a poll if I had asked "Is it okay with you?", but I asked "Is it okay with common American people today?", which means that I wasn't asking supporters about their personal feelings on the matter, but was rather asking about the general situation of how this particular matter is treated in the American society today. – brilliant Jan 8 '11 at 6:02
  • I think Brilliant has a point. It might have been wiser to go with "leads to subjective discussion" instead of "it's not about the language". – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 10 '11 at 14:00

Disregarding the issue of whether the question is really a question rather than an instigation of a discussion, it's not really a question in the purview of this site. This is a question that at some level is fundamentally a question of sociology and literary criticism, and that too is outside the scope of this site.

If you have questions that are specifically about the workings of the English language, please ask. Questions about how society relates to how the English language is used are off topic.

  • @nohat: So you want to say that I can just go ahead and use the word 'nigger' in my translation without even bothering whether or not it will grate on American people's ear? – brilliant Jan 8 '11 at 7:00
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    @nohat: And why on earth you are giving me a link to the "criticism of English literature"? My question was not about English literature, but rather about how one specific word is treated in English (modern American English, to be precise). Or it can simply put in this way: my question was about the workings of the English language (again, American English) in case of usage of the word 'nigger'. It well fits in the category of word-usage questions, for which, by the way, a special 'word-usage' tag is existing on this website. – brilliant Jan 8 '11 at 7:01
  • @nohat: "This is a question that at some level is fundamentally a question of sociology and literary criticism" - Very vague really. Can you, please, specify at what "some level"? – brilliant Jan 8 '11 at 7:04
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    @brilliant (1) I am not saying anything in response to your question other than this is not the right venue to ask it. (2) Your question goes on about Huck Finn, the Bible, and "American society"—topics outside the purview of this site. (3) Your question asks readers to consider two different works of literature and to compare and contrast how society might feel about changing their contents. That is a question about sociology and literary criticism. It is not a question on the workings of the English language but rather of the English-language speaking community. There IS a difference. – nohat Jan 8 '11 at 17:24
  • @nohat: "Your question asks readers to consider two different works of literature and to compare..." - When did I ask people to consider two works of literature and compare? Did you really read my question? The very question was Is it okay in American society to alter well-respected books due to the presence of the word 'nigger'. Put it in more technical way, Is the level of profanity of – brilliant Jan 9 '11 at 1:22
  • @nohat: that word so high in American people’s mind that they wouldn’t even mind forfeiting the originality of their national masterpieces for the sake of not hearing/reading that word? The Huck Finn and the Bible were just examples that I used to illustrate my question. Never did I ask anyone to compare anything. – brilliant Jan 9 '11 at 1:23
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    @brilliant your question was about society and literature. Out of scope. Off-topic. – nohat Jan 9 '11 at 18:27
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    @Nohat: One might just as well say that it was about "usage and word choice". Seems like two categorical imperatives clashing... I can understand that you guys do not want this question on here, but I do not find the arguments used very conclusive. Would it not have been better to ask Brilliant to rephrase his question, and point him in the right direction? – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 10 '11 at 14:12
  • @Cerberus if it hadn't also been a poll question, maybe. – nohat Jan 10 '11 at 18:13
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    @Nohat: A poll, as in "is it OK with common Americans"? So what if he rewrote that sentence? What about "is it a common phenomenon in American society to censor like this", also in his question? – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 10 '11 at 18:20
  • @Cerberus Almost any discussion of literature and society at some level is about language, but that doesn't make all such discussions on-topic for this site. "Usage and word choice" means grammaticality and formality levels, not societal attitudes about censorship. Taboo words themselves are fair game for discussion here, but not when the question is about how society feels about censoring use of those words in literature. Considering that we're looking for questions that have answers not discussions, I really just don't see a way that this question could be rehabilitated. – nohat Jan 10 '11 at 18:55
  • @Nohat: Okay I can see that. In a way, I understand this limitation. In another way, it is a pity that questions about societal attitudes towards language should not belong here. I have seen others of the same type here, though, which weren't closed. // While it could not be rephrased to exclude societal attitudes, I think it could be made to discourage personal opinions, as in "Do you expect this kind of censorship to be supported by group X?". – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 10 '11 at 19:28

I'm not quite sure of it, but this might have it's place on writers.se, but not without working a bit on the question. As Jeff Atwood pointed, it is some kind of poll, and that would be a bad subjective question. Maybe asking how to approach censure depending on target audiance, in a pro context, or something of this kind. Maybe a rewrite using the new critique tag of writers could be a good use of the tag.

  • That might be a good idea. The only thing is that those writers sometimes give such long answers... – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Jan 10 '11 at 18:21

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